Vivid War Photos and the Career of Robert Capa


Share on Facebook

'If your pictures are not good enough, you're not close enough.' Robert Capa

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will open at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles on March 23, 2013 and run through June 2, 2013. This exhibition has been organized by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY encompasses over 150 images going as far back as 1887 through present-day and is arranged by themes presenting both the military and civilian point of view including the advent of war, daily routines, the fight itself, the aftermath, medical care, prisoners of war, refugees, executions, memorials, remembrance and more.  

The exhibit includes the work of award-winning portrait photographers and photojournalists, military photographers, amateurs and artists including iconic images such as Joe Rosenthal’s Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day, Times Square, New York.  Recognizable from news coverage is Eddie Adams’ image of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon. © Louie Palu; U.S. Marine Gysgt. Carlos “OJ” Orjuela, age 31, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from Project: Home Front (2008).

Specific to the Los Angeles exhibit will be the Annenberg Space for Photography’s original short documentary film and digital image presentation produced by Arclight Productions. Both the documentary and digital gallery will feature over 500 photographs exclusive to the photography space from six acclaimed contemporary conflict photographers: Alexandra Avakian, Carolyn Cole, Ashley Gilbertson, Edouard H.R. Glück, David Hume Kennerly and Joao Silva.

In interviews in the film, these six photographers share their experiences, including life-threatening situations faced by their subjects and themselves. Photographer Joao Silva revisits sites in his native South Africa, recalling the violence that led up to that country’s first democratic election in 1994. Ashley Gilbertson is filmed in Midland, Texas, on the final shoot for his book, Bedrooms of the Fallen, which examines the bedrooms of young soldiers who never returned home from war.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY arrives in Los Angeles from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on March 23, 2013 before it travels to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Museum. Capa on assignment in Spain, using a Filmo 16mm movie camera by Gerda Taro.

Robert Capa, (1913-1954) was a Jewish-Hungarian combat photographer and photojournalist who covered five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War. He documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, the Battle of Normandy on Omaha Beach and the liberation of Paris. His action photographs, such as those taken during the 1944 Normandy invasion, uniquely portray the violence of war.

In 1947, Capa co-founded Magnum Photos in Paris with David "Chim" Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert. The organization was the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance photographers.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary. Deciding that there was little future under the regime in Hungary, he left home at 18.

Capa originally wanted to be a writer; however, he found work in photography in Berlin and grew to love the art. In 1933, he moved from Germany to France because of the rise of Nazism, but found it difficult to find work as a freelance journalist. He adopted the name "Robert Capa" around this time— cápa ("shark") was his nickname in school and he felt that it would be recognizable and American-sounding, since it was similar to that of film director Frank Capra. He found it easier to sell his photos under the newly adopted "American"-sounding.

Death of a Loyalist SoldierThe Falling Soldier by Robert Capa.

From 1936 to 1939, Capa worked in Spain, photographing the Spanish Civil War, along with Gerda Taro, his companion and professional photography partner, and David Seymour. In 1938, he traveled to the Chinese city of Hankow, now called Wuhan, to document the resistance to the Japanese invasion.

In 1936, Capa became known across the globe for the "Falling Soldier" photo long thought to have been taken in Cerro Muriano on the Cordoba Front. It was thought to be of a Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) militiaman who had just been shot and was falling to his death, and was long considered an iconic image of the war. Scholars have debated the authenticity of this photograph.

American troops coming ashore on D-DayAt the start of World War II, Capa was in New York City, having moved there from Paris to look for work, and to escape Nazi persecution. During the war, Capa was sent to various parts of the European Theatre on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier's Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired by Collier's. He was the only "enemy alien" photographer for the Allies. One notable photograph from this period shows a Sicilian peasant indicating the direction in which German troops had gone, near Sperlinga. On 7 October 1943 Robert Capa was in Naples with Life reporter Will Lang Jr., and there he photographed the Naples post office bombing.

American troops landing in Europe on D-DayProbably his most famous images, The Magnificent Eleven, are a group of photos of D-Day. Taking part in the Allied invasion, Capa was with the second wave of American troops on Omaha Beach. The men storming Omaha Beach faced some of the heaviest resistance from German troops within the bunkers of the Atlantikwall. While under constant fire, Capa took 106 pictures, but all but eleven were destroyed in a photo lab accident back in London.

Capa toured Israel after its founding. He took the numerous photographs that accompanied Irwin Shaw's book, Report on Israel.

In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War.

Although a few years earlier, he had said he was finished with war, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas. On May 25, 1954 at 2:55 p.m., the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his Jeep and go up the road to photograph the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an explosion; Capa had stepped on a landmine. When they arrived on the scene, he was alive but his left leg had been blown to pieces, and he had a serious wound in his chest. Mecklin called for a medic and Capa was taken to a small field hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Capa is known for redefining wartime photojournalism. His work came from the trenches as opposed to the more arms-length perspective that was the precedent. He was famed for saying, "If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough."

For decades, many of Capa's photographs of the Spanish Civil War were presumed lost, but they surfaced in Mexico City in the late 1990s. While fleeing Europe in 1939, Capa had lost the collection, which over time came to be dubbed the "Mexican suitcase".

On December 19, 2007, the owner of the negatives, Benjamin Tarver, decided to return the negatives to the families of the photographers. The collection contained 4,500 negatives of photographs by Capa, Gerda Taro and Chim. Ownership of the collection was transferred to the Capa Estate, and in December 2007 the collection was moved to the International Center of Photography, a museum founded in Manhattan by Capa's younger brother Cornell.

In 1995, thousands of negatives to photographs that Capa took during the Spanish Civil War were found in three suitcases bequeathed to a Mexico City filmmaker from his aunt. In 1939, after Capa fled Europe for the United States during World War II, he left these negatives behind in a Paris darkroom. They were assumed lost during the Nazi invasion of Paris. It is not known how the negatives traveled to Mexico, but apparently Capa asked his darkroom manager, a Hungarian photographer Imre Weisz, to save his negatives during 1939 and 1940. Jerald R Green, a professor at Queens College, was informed by a letter from a Mexican film-maker about this discovery. In January 2008, the negatives were transferred to the Capa estate, but the Mexican film-maker has asked to remain anonymous.

The International Center of Photography organized a travelling exhibition titled This Is War: Robert Capa at Work, which displayed Capa's innovations as a photojournalist in the 1930s and 1940s. It includes vintage prints, contact sheets, caption sheets, handwritten observations, personal letters and original magazine layouts from the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.


Visit your local library for these resources:

Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa
Alex Kershaw, (2003).
 Kershaw covers every aspect of Capa’s fast, enormously influential, and rightfully legendary life, from his transformation from Andre Friedmann, a Hungarian Jew, into intrepid, self-taught photographer Robert Capa in Berlin during the 1930s. A passionate womanizer and gambler, heavy drinker, and all-around good-time guy, Capa could never stay still. And because he risked his life to document the inconceivable carnage of modern warfare, his life story is tightly woven into vivid accounts of the most hellish battles of World War II and Israel’s war for independence.  — Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published June 1, 2003 (Booklist).

Robert Capa
Richard Whelan, (1985).
Photojournalist Capa, whom many readers will best remember for his distinguished contributions to Life magazine, is recalled here in what will surely become the definitive biography. Capa led an adventurous life, circling the globe in search of newsworthy pictures. War brought out the professional best in his work, and his stints in the Spanish civil war, in Europe during World War II, and in Indochina produced a remarkable series of photographs that portrays the blood of the battle and the boredom of war.  — Excerpt of review by John Brosnahan first published November 1, 1985 (Booklist).

Robert Capa, photographs
Robert Capa, (1996).
Drawing upon hundreds of previously unseen images, this collection reveals Capa as one of the great poets of the camera. Robert Capa demonstrated not only a passionate commitment to improving the human condition, but also an unfailing eye for graphic impact.

Heart of Spain : Robert Capa's photographs of the Spanish Civil War : from the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofi´a
Robert Capa, Juan Pablo Fusi Aizpuru´a, Richard Whelan, Catherine Coleman, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofi´a, (1999).
"Heart of Spain is the first volume to be devoted entirely to the finest of Robert Capa's photographs from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and features many never-before-published images, including selections from Capa's long-lost contact sheets.

The Mexican suitcase : the rediscovered Spanish Civil War negatives of Capa, Chim and Taro
Robert Capa, Gerta Taro, David Seymour, Cynthia Young, International Center of Photography, (2010).

War/photography : images of armed conflict and its aftermath
Anne Tucker; Will Michels; Natalie Zelt; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, et al, (2012).
More than 480 images illustrate the relationship between photography and war, showing the experience of armed conflict through the eyes of photographers across two centuries and six continents.

Magnum : fifty years at the front line of history
Russell Miller, (1997).
Miller’s history of the famous cooperative photo agency Magnum is unauthorized--no surprise, that, for one thing to count on in Magnum is disagreement.  Despite that lack of approval, Miller was able to base his lively and fascinating account on lengthy interviews with all current members except Bruce Davidson and Gilles Peress, and it all seems quite credible--at times, credibly incredible. Magnum’s role in photojournalism can’t be overemphasized, for the quality of the work done and for Magnum’s historic role in keeping copyrights for its photographers.— Excerpt of review by Gretchen Garner first published May 1, 1998 (Booklist).

Israel, 50 Years: As Seen by Magnum Photographers
Aperture, (1998).
Members of Magnum, a photographers’ cooperative formed in 1947, have courageously and sensitively documented major world events, including the birth and growing pains of Israel.  People, both famous and anonymous, are the focus of nearly all of the 300-plus photographs gathered here, and many capture the nation’s tragic dichotomy, that of a sanctuary perpetually at war, especially David Seymour’s 1952 photograph of a wedding in which the traditional Jewish canopy is held aloft by both pitchforks and guns. Other Magnum photographers represented here include Leonard Freed, George Rodger, Burt Glinn, and Patrick Zachmann. — Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published May 1, 1998 (Booklist).

1.Article illustration:
© Russian Photo Association
Attack--Eastern Front WWII, by Dmitri Baltermants, Russian (born Poland, 1912–1990), Attack—Eastern Front WWII. 1941, gelatin silver print (printed 1960), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Michael Poulos in honor of Mary Kay Poulos at “One Great Night in November, 1997.” © Russian Photo Association.
2.© Louie Palu; U.S. Marine Gysgt. Carlos “OJ” Orjuela, age 31, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from Project: Home Front (2008).
3. Robert Capa on assignment in Spain, using a Filmo 16mm movie camera by Gerda Taro.
4. The Falling Soldier (Death of a Loyalist Soldier)by Robert Capa.
5., 6.  Troops landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944 D-Day; Soldier taking cover at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944, by Robert Capa.


Creative Commons License